Amid Nationwide Shortage, Israelis Scramble for Eggs

Panic has led to long lines, purloined products and a black market, and there is added anxiety with Passover around the corner

Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Avi Waksman
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A shop owner examining eggs in Jerusalem, 2013.
A shop owner examining eggs in Jerusalem, 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Avi Waksman

Almost everyone in Israel is in lockdown and a quarter of the population is unemployed due to the coronavirus epidemic, but what has finally caused a lot of Israelis to finally lose it is a nationwide egg shortage. There are videos of people stealing eggs off the backs of delivery trucks, tips on the social media about where to buy the scarce commodity and grocers who will only sell you eggs if you purchase at least 50 shekels ($14) of them.

Lines have grown in front of stores rumored to have them. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion on Sunday morning, lines grew to hundreds of people, forcing police to break up the crowds out of concern that they were violating social-distancing orders. And black-market egg trade has developed beyond the oversight of the  government.

The egg shortage was supposed to have run its course a few days ago, but despite government efforts that echo the same urgency as they are treating the coronavirus epidemic, the shortage persists two weeks after it first surfaced.

Credit: Haaretz
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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

A week ago, the Agriculture Ministry put out a statement aimed at calming the public. It was entitled “The Agriculture Ministry is stepping up imports ahead of seder night.” Ships were being rerouted and their cargos doubled in size, officials promised.

But with the shortage as severe as ever, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped in to order subsidies to fly in imported eggs. The Prime Minister’s Office said it had committed 12 million shekels to the cost.

On Sunday, Ashdod Port said millions of eggs were on the way to Israel from Spain aboard two ships, one arriving Sunday and the other Tuesday. “The relevant government bodies have arranged a fleet of trucks and logistics centers to accelerating the delivery of eggs to supermarket chains today,” the port said.

Still, egg importers say the government has acted too late to prevent a shortage before Passover. A source speaking to TheMarker on Sunday said only about 3.8 million eggs were due to arrive at Ashdod Port, versus local production of 6 million a day and demand of 10 million daily right now.

The PMO’s announcement on Friday said the state would subsidize the cost of flying in 20 million eggs, but they would only come in time for the intermediate days of Passover.

For the record, government officials and those in the business blame the shortage on an outbreak of hysteria that caused consumers to stock up on eggs in record amounts. Normally, Israel’s daily egg consumption of 6 million grows about 20% before Passover. But this year demand has risen 80% and it would be even higher if there were more eggs available.

The Agriculture Ministry said it tried to meet the demand with a shipment of about 8 million imported eggs last week, but that wasn’t enough.

“On Thursday we delivered to the Osher Ad [supermarket] in Beit Shemesh a crazy number of eggs. They were sold out in three hours even though it should have been enough to last them five days or a week. That also happened at [other supermarket chains] Machsanei Hashuk, Yeinot Bitan, Shufersal and Victory. You can’t believe it,” said Michael Lasser, owner of the egg distributor M. Lasser.

A supermarket in Bnei Brak with a sign posted reading "No eggs, not even next week"
A supermarket in Bnei Brak with a sign posted reading "No eggs, not even next week"Credit: Meged Gozani

'People have to restrain themselves'

“For the last month and a half we’ve been working 18-hour days. People have to restrain themselves. Buy two cartons today and two more next week. Ships are arriving all the time. Last week the most eggs we could possibly bring in arrived – 6 million eggs, just us alone and it’s like it never happened,” said Lasser.

“Unfortunately, if people keep consuming eggs in quantities like they are now, the shortage will last until Passover eve, he said referring to the evening of the seder on Wednesday.

A man with egg crates in his shopping cart, Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020.
A man with egg crates in his shopping cart, Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The Agriculture Ministry had planned two months ago for unusually strong demand for eggs, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis who normally would have been going abroad for the holiday had no choice but to stay home due to coronavirus travel restrictions. But the ministry didn’t take into account the risk of hoarding even as other countries were reporting egg shortages. Arrangements to air-freight eggs and limits on supermarket purchases came too late.

“We couldn’t have taken into account the mass hysteria that arose here,” said one official who asked not to be named. “It’s not really a shortage. It’s that families are buying five or six times what they usually do.”

That said, the official admitted that “it seems we failed in transmitting the message to the public that there wouldn’t be a shortage. The public is hoarding and there are shortages for other products, too.”

The official expressed concern that the shortage could endanger public health. Farmers who have eggs beyond their government-mandated quota are free to sell them from the back of their cars without any supervision or testing.

“It could cause a health problem worse than the coronavirus,” he said. “There are warehouses selling as many eggs as you want – ‘just come and buy,’ and that’s dangerous. Our central unit for enforcement and investigation has caught some of them, but often by the time we’ve heard about something and come to investigate, the eggs are already gone.”

'The shortage isn't real'

Ministry officials say they urged the government to subsidize air freighting eggs to Israel, but were turned down on grounds of high cost.

“You have to keep in mind that the shortage isn’t real. It’s because people are ambushing the stores. But we were ready to subsidize the flights, even if it would have exacerbated the panic to a degree, just to reassure the public,” said the official.

“But the treasury is completely overburdened now and wouldn’t release the money. Only now did [Finance Minister] Moshe Kahlon agreed to the subsidies despite opposition from officials. But it’s too late, at least for Passover eve,” he said.

Lasser said that if the approvals had been made at the end of last week, there almost certainly would have been enough eggs before Passover. He said he was still looking into options.

The Finance Ministry categorically denies the Agriculture Ministry’s accusations and lays the blame on the Agriculture Ministry.

“When the Agriculture Ministry presented the budget division with the issue, they said the maximum number of eggs that we would need to import was two million out of a shortfall of 30 million,” said one treasury official.

“It was proposed we import from Turkey, which has large supplies, and all the world is importing from. unfortunately, the Agriculture Ministry refused for reasons that are unclear up to now,” he said.

For its part, the Agriculture Ministry said it didn’t agree to import Turkish eggs due to reasons involving health. Turkish standards aren’t as high as Israeli ones and in the past, eggs imported from Turkey had been found to contain antibiotics and other chemicals banned in Israel, as well as salmonella in many deliveries.

Another problem is brown eggs. “In much of the world, they don’t distinguish between brown and white eggs – eggs are eggs. Israeli importers don’t want to take brown eggs because the public is reluctant to buy them. I’ve even heard it said in the ultra-Orthodox  world that there are even kashrut problems with them because it’s more difficult to see through the shell and find traces of blood,” said an Agriculture Ministry official.

He said Israeli importers didn’t have the market power to demand that overseas suppliers separate the eggs by color. “Even more so these days when all over the world, there’s huge demand for eggs and [suppliers] don’t need the Israeli market,” the official explained.

In the past, the ministry had offered to compensate importers for their unsold brown eggs. But given the insatiable demand, it seems that this time shoppers may agree to accept brown eggs, too.

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